Don’t go alone. Don’t trust the handrails. Bring a flashlight. Jump only at your own risk. These are just some of the cardinal rules of urban exploration.
“Urb-ex,” as it’s often called, is the exploration of abandoned man-made structures. The ruins of churches, offices, apartment buildings–all are fodder for adventurers eager to experience forgotten worlds. Many urb-ex enthusiasts are photographers eager to record the processes of decay, who see the potential of these untouched sites for producing striking images that call forth ruminations on the effects of time. For others, it’s simply enough to stand in a space that, once filled with life, now exists outside the bounds of human commerce.
While there are scavengers, taggers and litterers who help speed up the process of decay, the intent of urban explorers is not to plunder or vandalize these sites. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; they’re there to document and, in some cases, preserve them. Last year, local explorer and photographer Rick Drew organized a clean-up of the City Methodist Church in Gary, and explorers removed over thirty bags of trash from the site. Ultimately, urban explorers acknowledge that there are some places that will have to live on in memories, but many of them try to prolong that memorial process as long as possible.
To be clear, urban exploration is not a safe hobby. On my foray with three local explorers, one of whom had broken an arm in a recent exploration mishap, I was treated to tales of tetanus, encounters with squatters, and some close calls with deteriorating structures. Urban explorers have to be constantly aware of their surroundings, never trusting the integrity of the walls around them.
Why would a person be willing to risk life and limb to investigate these ruins? For some, the appeal lies in the undeniable sense of adventure. Urban explorers tend to be very cautious, but no matter how careful you are, there’s still a niggling feeling at the back of the skull, a vertiginous twinge in the stomach, or a catch of breath that constantly reminds you that a building could give way at any moment.
For history enthusiasts, abandoned buildings offer a trove of information. As we explored an abandoned post office, Drew led us through a series of hidden tunnels that would have served as surveillance points for supervisors, intended to ensure that employees were not stealing mail. In the Ambassador, an apartment complex built by the U.S. Steel Corporation in 1927, the basement laundry room served as a bomb shelter, and by touring the crumbling apartments, one could easily discern how employees of the historic corporation would have lived.
But one of the main draws for urban explorers is the sheer beauty of it all. There’s something deeply awe-inspiring about about seeing the man-made splendors of another era returned to nature. Hiking through these interiors, one feels truly privileged to see something that so few eyes have seen. Exploring these spaces is like unearthing the ruins of a lost civilization or spelunking in some unknown wild, and not just metaphorically: stalactites, rusticles, and dense vegetation are common in many sites. Such changes allow one to sense the unfolding of time in a unique way. In the case of City Methodist Church, the exquisite 1920s architecture mixes with modern artifacts left behind in 1975 when the church closed, the graffiti left behind by current visitors, and the flora and fauna that are slowly retaking the structure. (For history, photos, and videos of the church, visit Drew’s website www.citymethodistchurch.com.)
While many of these spaces would have been beautiful in their finished glory, there’s almost something more captivating about them now. The weathered, sun-bleached colors, sprawling plant-life and textures of peeling paint in these buildings are, in the words of local photographer Carmen Heller-Chariton, “a photographer’s dream.” A number of movie location scouts have also picked up on the visual interest of these spaces, and in 2011, more than 50 films were shot in Gary, many of which used abandoned locations.
When the steel industry crashed in the 1970s, Gary suffered from a significant job shortage, and a number of citizens left the city. A dropping population, the loss of business, and the resultant economic effects have left this once-booming town with a number of abandoned sites. Photographer Chuck Walla, a lifetime resident of Gary, visited many of these places when they were still in operation. He remembers a childhood friend who lived in The Ambassador, and he played basketball a few times at the City Methodist Church before it closed.
For a number of explorers like Walla, urb-ex seems to be a way of reconciling the present with the past. While there’s certainly a sense of melancholy to these empty spaces, exploration at least gives one a sense that these buildings have continued to live on, albeit in a different form. In two out of the three sites we visited that day, we encountered other photographers, and many of the spaces still showed signs of life. Rather than dwelling on the disappointments of the past, urb-ex allows one to find a sense of redemption in the beauty of the decay. These spaces aren’t completely lost; they are simply transformed.